A Dispatch from Moscow

Hello everyone. I hope this post finds you all safe and sound. The impacts of the COVID-19 virus are now being felt across the world and for us here in Moscow, it is no different. I thought I would give you a peak into what life has been like here for the past few weeks.

When I first heard about school closures for friends who work in Macau, Hong Kong, and China, I was surprised but aware that epidemics had caused disruptions like this before. I was in Korea when MERS came to the country, my first real interaction with the societal impact of a virus. It effected us on a much smaller scale with school being made optional for the last two weeks and more masks in public than usual. Thankfully, MERS came to an end right around the end of the school year and I was able to board a plane to the States to begin my summer.

My new assistant on Day 1 of distance learning

Today I am here in Moscow. My school campus is shuttered, I am teaching from my kitchen table. After careful deliberation, I have decided to ride out the storm here at least until the end of the school year. Without going into great detail, my school has taken extraordinary measures to ensure our safety and sanity. We had warning, we watched our friends in Asia bear the initial brunt and, as teachers so often do, they turned their misfortune into teachable moments and shared their wisdom, successes, and failures with us. I sent students home with art supplies, we hosted a mock graduation, and my Grade 12 students cleared out two years of their beautiful artwork – their senior IB art show cancelled. It was a very emotional week.

My seniors on their last day in high school. Despite so much having been taken from them, I was stunned by their maturity and poise. They will be missed!

Given time to prepare, thanks to the school’s forethought and pragmatism, we teachers rapidly shifted into digital learning. Certain subjects lend themselves better than others but, as teachers, we are often asked to go above and beyond, and teachers worldwide have risen to the call. I am blessed with a population which has access to a personal digital device. This is not true for all communities across the world. The vast majority of my students will be fed and safe during this stressful time. Again, this is not true for others. In Oregon, the state has seen a sharp decline in reports of child abuse. This is heartbreaking knowing that it is the mandatory reporting of teachers that brings in so many calls. No one knows our kids like we do. In Paris, the government has put aside thousands of hotel beds for those who call a national domestic violence hotline. People are trapped at home with their abusers. If any of you are in the same position, you can call: 1-800-799-SAFE. We can all do our part to keep an extra ear out for our neighbors during this time.

So what does daily life look like in Moscow? We’ve been told by the government to stay home, mandated to stay in our apartments until April 30. We can leave only for emergencies, to take out the trash, walk the dog, or visit our nearest pharmacy or grocery store. This may seem extreme to some but I am gladly complying. I have had friends who have already experienced the virus and recovered. This virus is no joke. Please – if you are not already doing so – stay home.

I am thankful I still have a job. I have friends across the US who have been furloughed, who are now dealing with unemployment offices that are so overtaxed that once (if) they reach a human, they’re told to call back next week. It’s not pretty, folks. I am 100% aware that I am one of the lucky ones. Work keeps my days on track. It has made the two weeks I’ve taught from home fly by. My community here and in the States is incredible. Everyday I speak with friends over Skype, Zoom, Google Meet, Facebook Messenger, KakaoTalk, Facetime, Marco Polo, Whatsapp, etc. etc. etc. My friends who are abroad are all in the same boat, to varying degrees of isolation. We keep tabs and check in constantly.

A Zoom call uniting Ontario, North Carolina, Qatar, Moscow, Saudi Arabia, and Seoul

I also have an amazing community here in Moscow, in my very building. Without going into detail, I will say I remain extremely well informed by both my school and the US Embassy. I feel safe. I have enough food. There is toilet paper on the grocery shelves (so I am told, I have not been to the store in two weeks).

My cat has proved excellent company. Initially, she resented me interrupting her naps but now we have adjusted. If I leave to walk the staircase a few times (we have no hallways but I’m on the 8th floor), she bounds to greet me upon my return, meowing her hello. Again, I’m extremely thankful.

Moloko humoring a nap interruption

Knowing that my family and friends are taking precautions back home keeps me sane. I’ve done my best to build a healthy daily routine for myself. I’m doing what I’m sure so many of you are doing – cooking, cleaning, exercising, making art, reading, watching The Tonight Show, etc. I have running water, electricity, and heat. I have community. I will be fine.

Please take care of yourselves and drop a line, even if you don’t normally. I would love to hear how you are getting through this and what the situation is like where you are. Or your Netflix recommendations. Or a shared recipe. We will get through this together ❤

My new assistant is such a creeper!

Moscow Visitors

I feel so lucky to have had visitors during my three years in Moscow. There’s nothing better than showing people you love around your new town. I continue to explore Moscow and having visitors is an awesome excuse to get to all those places I’ve put off or haven’t seen in a while.

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In March, my good friend Katie came for a visit. I’m sure her vacation destination was a bit of surprise to her fellow teachers but she made an amazing effort of it, traveling all the way from Minnesota on her spring break. A strong solo traveler, she took in Moscow while I worked and even trekked to St. Petersburg on her own. For those wondering, seeing both cities is definitely doable within a week.

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A Moscow Metro rite of passage for good luck at Площадь Революции (Ploshchad Revolyutsii)

Highlights of Katie’s visit included a brunch at the Metropol Hotel, touring the Kremlin Armory, and a Georgian feast (see below).

Just a few weeks ago, I hosted my aunt Susan for her first ever visit to Russia. Suz is a wonderful person to travel with and we planned her visit over the Victory Day holidays to get in a little extra time together.

When I was living in Korea, Suz gamely hopped a plane and visited me in Seoul. We went to China together, putting in thousands of steps all over Beijing and Xian. There really is nothing like sharing an incredible trip with someone you love and I’m so thankful to have family who are up for it!

Suz and I on a canal in St. Petersburg

We hopped the SapSan fast train up to St. Petersburg for what’s become a bit of a May tradition for me. We traveled on Victory Day which brought a few road closures but no major issues. The coolest, most powerful sight upon arrival was the Parade of the Immortals, commemorating the over 27 million (MILLION) Soviet soldiers and citizens lost in the Great War (World War II). St. Petersburg itself (as Leningrad) was under siege for over 900 days, the horrendous losses reverberating through the crowd carrying photographs of their loved ones lost. This is not a nation that will ever forget.

The Parade of the Immortals. Participants themselves number in the millions.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg

Suz in the Winter Palace, Hermitage Museum

One of the highlights of our trip was seeing my first ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg’s famed ballet stage. Only slightly smaller in size than the Bolshoi, the venue was stunningly gorgeous with supremely gifted dancers and magnificent stage sets. Made for the perfect birthday present – all thanks to my dad.

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Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg

Another highlight from our St. Petersburg was a trip to Catherine Palace, a spot about 30 km outside of town. A summer palace for the tsars, the place is dripping in gold and excess. Each room is more stunning than the last – there is even a grand ballroom which evokes vibes of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

With the solstice quickly approaching, white nights are coming to St. Pete’s

Back in Moscow, we toured around as much as my school schedule would allow. Something new in the travelsphere is Airbnb Experiences. Many of you may use Airbnb rentals in cities around the world. The website now offers additional experiences at a fraction of the cost of private tours. I found Suz a walking tour of the Kremlin area of Moscow and she had a really nice time with her local Russian guide, Sveta. They traded stories and questions about culture, both in the States and here. I really can’t recommend a chance like this enough, especially for the opportunity to meet someone local. Call it next-level traveling but it truly enriches the experience.

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Suz picked the perfect time of year to be in Moscow – not too hot but no more snow!

As I look forward to two more years here in Moscow, consider this an open invitation! This city is constantly evolving and updating, and certainly has a past worthy of any history buff’s time. You never know – you might wake up to find this goober waiting to greet you 😉

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World Cup 2018

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Brett and I in Red Square

World Cup 2018 was one for the books. The vibe in Moscow was absolutely electric. Never have I ever seen such a variety of ethnicities, smiles, and good cheer on the streets. The games brought people together like no other.

Back in 2016, I couldn’t believe my luck when I realized I had accepted a contract in the country which would host the next exhibition! My brother couldn’t resist joining in on the action and together we set out to explore Moscow and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

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Fresh off a week of work in Munich, Brett took in the sights

Prior to the Cup, Moscow undertook great preparations to make the city more visitor friendly. This meant added English signage and huge construction projects. From metro announcements to street signs, Russia laid out the red carpet. Super lucky for us ex-pats!

As is customary for the World Cup, Russia hosted matches in 11 different cities. After a 14-hour visit to Moscow, my brother and I flew to Kaliningrad to see Morocco take on Spain.

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As you may have noticed, Kaliningrad is not attached to mainland Russia. This was news to me when I first moved here! Our Grade 7 students visit annually for their Discovery Week trip and teacher friends had given me a little heads up about the place.

With an airport as big as Burlington International (that is to say, not), Kaliningrad played host to four matches and loads of international visitors. Brett and I arrived the day before our match as flights in and out of the city are limited. This gave us a minute to look around and get used to Kaliningrad’s small-town flavor. The Amber Museum and delicious Georgian food at Borsch & Salo were both highlights.

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Outside World Cup Stadium

As we approached the stadium, the excitement was palpable. While organization in downtown Kaliningrad was shaky at best, the event staff on site were super excited take on the crowds. High fives and smiles greeted visitors and added to the positive vibes.

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We adopted Spain as our team for the night

We arrived early to take in the atmosphere and grabbed some food. Both alcoholic and non-alcoholic Budweiser was being served, primarily for the comfort of the Moroccan visitors as the country boasts a whopping 95% of the population to be Sunni Muslim – wow! I had no idea.

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Not a bad seat in the house

Our seats found us on the front lines between the Spaniards seated above us and Moroccans below. Both sets of fans displayed great passion with Morocco taking the cake. Their extreme dislike of FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) was made extremely clear throughout the night. From the controversy surrounding the use of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) technology – officially used the first time in World Cup history – to accusing FIFA of bias against teams from Africa, the Moroccans had much to say. And did they ever!

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The crowd was littered with fans with panache

The game flew by in the blink of an eye and before we knew it, Morocco had rallied to end the game with an official 2-2 tie. Well fought on both sides, we got to see one of the most exciting games of the group stage.

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With flights in and out of Kaliningrad fairly rare, we had an extra day on our hands. Dodging rain, we explored the Old Town waterfront and the Konigsberg Cathedral.

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A former Prussian settlement, the town boasts a Germanic look to its architecture. Charming and visitor accessible, the waterfront is lovely for a stroll or a stop at one of the many coffee shops that dot the canal.

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Kaliningrad is surely a quaint town, known in particular for the famous amber found in the region.

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A street vendor outside the Cathedral

We stopped by the fan zone to watch the Sweden match. It was still quite chilly in Kaliningrad, despite being mid-June, but considering it was still snowing in Moscow at this time last summer, we considered it a win.

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From Kaliningrad, Brett and I boarded a flight to Berlin. I said goodbye to Russia for the meanwhile and turned my thoughts to what lay ahead. Having never been to Germany, I couldn’t wait to explore…

Watch out Suzdal

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The end of the school year is always a blur – kids move, report card comments are due, and the weather makes it hard to focus, never mind get any learning accomplished. This year, I added to that list leading the Grade 6 Discovery Week Trip to Suzdal, Russia (part of my job as Grade 6 team leader), moving across town, and the World Cup (post to follow) – you know, because why not? (never again!).

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I had been prepping for Suzdal since January – forms, hotel reservations, parent meetings – as it is the first big trip many of these students will do independent of their parents. Sure, some of them may travel first class with their parents but can they carry their own suitcase across the railroad tracks in Vladimir, a stop on Russia’s Golden Ring? (Spoiler alert – yes, they can, aside from Jean who wiped out carrying a suitcase the size of his body).

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Our motley crew

For those who remember my post of last year, Suzdal is a former economic stronghold approximately 5 hours Southeast of Moscow. Today it lays host to a large number of Orthodox monasteries, churches, and its own Kremlin (most Russian towns have their own – literally the former town marketplace). The purpose of our journey is primarily independence, amusement, a sprinkling of local culture. Many kiddos can live in Moscow for years and never get to see a town outside the city limits. Suzdal is a perfect intro.

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From a wooden architecture museum to the farm on former a movie set, my students had a chance to get out of the classroom and their comfort zone. Highlights included cuddling some bunny rabbits, a homemade amusement park (see the seesaw photo below), and horseback riding.

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The kids also got the chance to try their hand at throwing clay pots at the wonderful Dymov Ceramics Studio, definitely my favorite excursion of the week.

All in all, the trip was a great success. All returned home tired, healthy, and happy. With only three days left in the school year, we were all ready for a break! And with the World Cup underway starting June 14, there was lots more fun to be had. Stay tuned…

Disclaimer – the arm harm occurred prior to the trip

Bolshoi Beauty

The Bolshoi Theatre represents the epitome of Russian ballet culture. When the chance arose to explore the Bolshoi on a behind-the-scenes tour, I eagerly gathered friends and signed up.

In Russian, bolshoi means big or grand – yet ‘grand’ cannot fully capture all that this building encompasses. Reminiscent of Versailles or the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Bolshoi Theatre features notes of rich red and gilded gold that I’ve come to equate with Russian elegance. Sanctioned by Catherine the Great in 1776, the Moscow Theatre Company was originally housed in a smaller building along the Neglinka River. After multiple theatres were lost to fire, the troupe relocated in 1856 to the expansive building that you see today.

As our group walked into the orchestra of the main theatre, we were lucky enough to happen upon a practice session of the ballet Giselle. The prima ballerina, dressed down in casual wear and toe shoes, floated across the stage to the sounds of the grand piano set front and center. Abstract set designs including the cosmos and other natural phenomena added to the spectacle.

When my parents visited in May of this year, we had the chance to see a ballet on the Bolshoi’s New Stage, just around the corner. Absolutely gorgeous itself, the New Stage was by far the better choice as the Historic Stage featured an opera that evening (good call, Dad).

Taking in the grandiosity of the venue from below, I was acutely aware of the history of this hollowed concert hall. Moscow itself has changed rapidly in the past 150 years. The one constant among historic drawings is always the Bolshoi Theatre, as seen below.

Swan Lake premiered here in 1877. Nazi bombs fell upon it in 1941. The creation of the USSR was declared from this very stage. For more of the fascinating history of this building – particularly of its usage by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution – you can click here.

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With seemingly no bad seat in the house, wealthy Russian families used to purchase a box for the full theatre season. They would then redecorate the box to their liking with purchases of furniture and wallpaper. When the Bolshoi was redone in the rich golds and reds of today’s decor, it’s said that women did not appreciate being upstaged in their elegant theatre attire.

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The stage floor is famously sloped to provide the audience with the best view of the dancers. The floor is mechanically leveled when foreign ballet companies perform here.

After climbing to the boxes above, we were surprised to find the stage had been quickly reset to allow for a rehearsal of the current opera, The Maid of Pskov. We were treated to a performance by the show’s chorus as we watched from on high.

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The building itself is comprised of 13 levels – seven above ground and five below. An exact replica of the Bolshoi stage can be found in the attic above the Historic Stage. Our group snuck in silently and watched no less than 50 dancers practicing for an upcoming production. Many of the dancers were teenagers and children, members of the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

Known for pushing the limits of contemporary performance, as well as maintaining the highest standards of historic Russian culture, the Bolshoi is a true Moscow delight. Someday I hope to see a ballet from its seats. For now, I’ll reminisce about my visit as notes of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake drift through my apartment.

A Night in the Petroff Palace

The majority of my posts on this blog serve to share unique and wonderful experiences from my life abroad as an ex-pat. But in sharing all the good, perhaps a perspective is formed that all is rosy, life is bliss, and these experiences grow on trees. I have to tell you, and I know my ex-pat friends will agree, this is not always the case. Life throws you just as many curveballs when living abroad – and some truly unique ones at that. This post is about stepping up and trusting instincts, in bad times and in good.

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This sign hangs by the copier in our s office.

On Thursday morning, I had only just caught a ride to work with two of my good friends when we were sideswiped by an SUV just outside our apartment complex. We were all fine. Sadly, minor car accidents are common here in Moscow. I don’t know if it’s the #norules mentality or poor driving conditions (it was raining when we were hit) but the majority of cars on the road bear the scars of past collisions.

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Tough start to the school day.

Anyways, the story gets interesting because you’re not allowed to move the cars involved until the police show up. Hence a whole lot of traffic jams. But the police came quickly that day. We called the embassy for a mobile unit to come out and translate but it turns out budget cuts (and *staffing issues*) have led to the cancellation of a mobile unit. Nonplussed, we Google Translated our way through the interaction with four very kind local policeman who made it clear we were not at fault and took great care to make sure we were taken care of. Signing documents in a foreign language you don’t speak = more common than you might think living this life. Thankfully, we were reassured by our own security staff and soon we were on our way.

The next morning I boarded a plane bound for Tallinn, Estonia with my dear friend Peter. Excited to get out of rainy, dreary Moscow and take a trip to cozy Tallinn, I settled into my seat expecting a quick 1.5 hour ride. Moments before we were to taxi away from the gate, I was jolted from my seat by the sounds of someone in distress.

Turning to look only a few rows behind, I was horrified to see my colleague (who was also journeying to Tallinn) in extreme distress. His wife’s stricken face turned to me as I called out to her. The situation was dire and we both knew it. The flight staff was incredible and did everything right – bringing him back to consciousness and helping him stabilize. It was quickly clear to me that my help was needed and I pushed into action, calling for an ambulance and insurance permission.

Once he was stable, we were quickly shuffled off to the airport medical clinic where we spent hours waiting for an ambulance to take him just 15km downtown. The whole ordeal offered a sobering insight into the medical system that we are a part of, full of wonderfully caring people and far too much red tape. Thankfully, he got top rate care at the ex-pat hospital downtown and is today resting comfortably at home. Your health is your wealth, they say, and they’re absolutely right.

Once the situation calmed down, and with my plans sidelined, I knew I would need a little peace to put things in perspective. After a little Korean 순두부 (still my comfort food) and a good night’s rest, Saturday greeted me with the desire to get out and explore. After searching for historic hotels in Moscow, I booked a room at the Petroff Palace for the evening.

Petroff Castle from the front gates, just after the rain.

A former transit stop for tsars traveling from St. Petersburg, the Palace (also known as Petrovsky Castle) is featured in the works of Pushkin. Napoleon himself even stayed there while Moscow was being burned. Destroyed by the French in their retreat from Moscow in 1812, the castle was rebuilt in the 1830s. Turns out that I pass the castle daily on my commute to school but have never noticed it. For more on rich history of the castle and grounds, click here.

 

The room was stunning and private. I definitely treated myself to room service! The dish in the middle, dumplings in broth is called pelmeni soup. Native to Siberia, this dish is simple, delicious, and served with a dollop of sour cream on top.

 

The view from my window

Stunning.

Conveniently, the property is nestled within a beautiful park with wooded trails and gorgeous birch trees in bloom – just what the doctor ordered. The sun broke through the clouds just as I arrived and I enjoyed multiple sunbaths in the park during my stay. There’s nothing like time spent in nature to set you right again.

 

The sun exploded through the trees while rain still fell.

 

Intrigued by this gorgeous tree, I happened upon this Orthodox church in the park.

I rounded out the weekend with a stop at the ArtPlay Moscow space to see a show on the works of Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel. Though I’m hesitant about the “multimedia-ing” of classic works of art history, this movie blew my mind. Telling the tale of the dawn of civilization (with subtitles in English), the Dutchman’s work came alive on the screens engulfing the entire room – from the Tower of Babel to scenes of the Middle Ages.

The ArtPlay Center features specialty boutique shops, from lighting to antiques to art supplies.

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The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel, 1653

So, to conclude this story, I don’t have any great words of wisdom gleaned from this experience. I can only say that we do the best we can with what is presented us. That’s all we can do.

I’m very thankful to my friends and family who were there for me as I worked to put this experience into perspective. You were all so comforting. Take care, everyone. Be good to each other and to yourselves.

 

A night at the Metropol

One of the best parts of living in Europe is being surrounded by the centuries-old architecture. Moscow, for its part, is particularly fond of Art Nouveau, a style that peaked in the late 19th Century. Full of swirls and stained glass, Art Nouveau can be summed up by its calling card, the Tiffany lamp.

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Following Peter the Great‘s push towards French aristocratic ways in the 18th Century, Russia came to embrace European style, sending artisans and architects alike to study at schools such as Paris’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts.

It is at this point in art history where we find the Hotel Metropol, nestled in the heart of downtown Moscow. Dignified and imposing, the hotel sits directly outside the walls of Red Square.

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The hotel has certainly lived its fair share of history. Since it opening in 1905, the Metropol has housed writers and revolutionaries, from Bernard Shaw to Lenin. Today it stands as a monument to a time just prior to the Russian Revolution, an era of extravagance and artistic strides.

Conceived by Savva Mamontov, patron of the arts – a William Merritt Chase, if you will – the hotel was originally planned as an opera house, a palace to showcase the talents of Moscow and host those from abroad. Though Savva did not manage to hold onto the hotel itself, he is considered the father of this dream. And what a dream it was.

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For my part, I had only observed this beautiful building from outside. On an Art Nouveau Tour of Moscow this past spring, I was bitten by the idea to steal away a night at the Metropol. The iron gates beckoned and I couldn’t resist.

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This past weekend, my plan came to be. I felt like Eloise at the Plaza as I walked into the gorgeous foyer of the hotel, all gold-encrusted and marble-floored.

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As I approached the stunning elevator bank, I had to stop and marvel at the stained glass above and behind, decorating the huge bay windows encircling the Grand Ballroom.

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I’ve heard the Metropol described as a living museum, a Russian treasure. To do it justice, I had to spend a few hours wandering the halls, marveling at each new landing. From the stained glass to the rich carpets, the hotel did not disappoint.

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From my room I could see both the Bolshoi Theatre and the spires of the Kremlin. I wandered over to GUM Department Store, the former rubber and textile factory turned high-end shopping mall (think Gucci and Prada).

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I watched fireworks above Red Square from my window and marveled at the beautiful touches of Art Nouveau dotting my room – from the chandelier to the window latches. I also bathed in the basement pool, enjoying its privacy and quaint atmosphere.

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On Sunday morning, my friend Kelsey met me for brunch in the Grand Ballroom. We were both stunned as the hostess drew back the curtain, ushering us into a room which I can categorize as fit for the Titanic only (and built within 7 years of each other, no less).

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We feasted on an amazing buffet and tried to take in the real delight – the exquisite glass ceiling above. A harp played in the corner and the scene could not have been more elegant.

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Full to the brim and feeling a tad like Harriet the Spy, we explored new wings of the hotel, seeking treasures which appeared at every turn.

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At the top of a seemingly abandoned staircase, we turned a corner and nearly jumped out of our socks – a stuffed bear blocked our entrance to a room fit for a duomo.

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Bathed in shimmering red wallpaper, with an oculus adorned by a crystal chandelier, we had stumbled upon a room fit for the Tudors.

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The whole experience was overwhelming to the senses and I’m still digesting. I’d very much like to return and continue studying as the place surely has more stories to tell. For now, I would highly recommend the Metropol as a stop on anyone’s tour to Moscow – for brunch at the least. Moscow has many more gems to share, no doubt, but I’m left in true awe after 24 hours in this one.

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To read more about the extraordinary 110-year history of the Hotel Metropol, click here.